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IT in the Retail World

Episode 57

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IT in the Retail World

The CTO and VP of Sephora, Ali Bouhouch, discusses his role in finding ways to use the most innovative tech — including VR and AI — to meet the needs of retail customers.

“To me, technology is just an enabler that allows us to solve a human need.” — Ali Bouhouch of @Sephora #ITVisionaries

Show Notes

Ali Bouhouch (LinkedIn) has more than 20 years of experience in the tech industry and he currently serves as the CTO & VP of Enterprise Architecture at SEPHORA. It may seem odd that a makeup company has such an intense focus on tech, but when you dig a little deeper, it’s clear that technology is a key driver in the retail industry and a large part of how Sephora will grow in the future.

In this episode, Ali and Ian discuss applications that allow customers to virtually try on Sephora products, how the company is using AI and big data and so much more.

Topics Discussed: Innovation, AI, retail, VR, technology, customer experience, machine learning, applications.

Introducing Ali — (1:15)

  • Curiosity is baked into Ali’s personality dating back to when his parents would give him toys and he would take them apart to see how they function.
  • When he was younger, Ali wanted to build rocket ships to “create adventure and push the envelope of where humans could go.”

What it takes to be an industry-leading CTO — (3:35)

  • Excellence and trying to understand and utilize technology to try to solve human problems are the two key factors to starting your journey toward being a CTO.
  • You have to have a breadth of knowledge rather than focusing on a niche area.

The opportunity for IT and technology in the retail space — (4:55)

  • Through his work in consulting, Ali became involved with retailers and that was when it became a focus for the next part of his career.
  • “What got me interested in retail was the intersection of two intellectual curiosities. One is about technology and how to use it to solve human problems. The second one is understanding human psychology and understanding how that influences how we make decisions.”
  • In retail, the goal is to understand human behavior and psychology. Ali then uses the latest cutting edge technology to make sure that the company can meet human needs.
  • “Retail is an industry that is always changing. Therefore innovation is not a luxury, it’s necessary in order to remain relevant.”

How much does technology drive the retail industry? — (6:53)

  • When most people think about retail they think of brick and mortar traditional retail experiences. Traditional retailers, though, still run much of their IT on mainframes and have very little technology in the stores.
  • “Advanced retailers have blurred the delineation between physical and digital. Therefore, there is a lot of technology that enables the experience of blurring the line between the digital and physical.”
  • Because of the way tech has permeated every aspect of daily life, consumers have become more tech-savvy and retailers need to catch up.

Building the Sephora app — (10:12)

  • “You have to understand consumers more intimately. You have to anticipate their needs and wants and then create the experience that will meet those needs and wants. And you have to meet the customer where they are both physically and digitally.”
  • The customer is at the center of every question Sephora asks. And when they look at creating something, they first ask, what is missing from the experience?
  • When dealing with humans, people can feel judged. But technology can create a sense of personal private space between you and a machine.
  • It’s not about duplicating successful experiences that happen in the physical stores, rather it’s to enhance the physical experience by inputting valuable things the physical experience is lacking.
  • The virtual try-on experience was born after finding out that applying different makeups in stores was difficult and time-consuming.

Using AI to enhance the customer experience — (19:35)

  • One of the biggest challenges is overcoming all the hype: “The majority of what you see and hear about AI is marketing hype.”
  • There is tremendous potential: “You are starting to bring higher degrees of intelligence to human decisions thanks to the the capabilities of machines.”
  • The machine learning recommendations are not generic or based on what’s trending, they are personal.
  • “My skin is as unique as I am. I don’t want some generic recommendation. I want a recommendation that has a high level of succeeding for me. When that happens and that sweet spot is hit, the residual experience is nothing short of magical.”

What will be the standard moving forward? — (26:50)

  • Consumers are choosing to live in a digital world so that will be the way forward.
  • Voice is a natural way to interface and that is one of the areas Ali and his team are working on for Sephora.
  • You can’t use voice as a gimmick. Just as with the other technologies, you have to put the customer at the center and solve the challenges she is facing in the most appropriate way, whether it’s AR, machine learning, voice or any other technology.
  • “To me, technology is just an enabler that allows us to solve a human need.”
  • You have to have trust between brand and customer, and your technology cannot infringe on that trust. There is a fine line between useful and creepy technology, so you have to walk that tightrope.
  • Fundamental confidence is the core of what Sephora does.

Balancing the needs of customers versus employees — (36:10)

  • The interaction between IT and business has come a long way.

Getting buy-in from the top — (39:45)

  • It’s a three-step process:
    • 1) Do your job and do it well
    • 2) Understand the business you’re in
    • 3) Have the courage to take the initiative

Lightning Round — (43:45)

  • Dare to Lead by Brene Brown
  • San Diego and Santa Cruz are worth a visit
  • Advice: “Get a mentor. I would not be where I’m at today without the invaluable advice and time my mentors have invested in me.”

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The CTO and VP of Sephora, Ali Bouhouch, discusses his role in finding ways to use the most innovative tech — including VR and AI — to meet the needs of retail customers.

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